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By Katrina Manson
KISANGANI, Congo (Reuters) - U.N. peacekeepers began leaving the Democratic Republic of Congo on Wednesday as part of a small but symbolic troop reduction before the 50th anniversary of the country's independence on June 30.
More than 100 of a 458-strong battalion of Senegalese troops stationed in the east of the country with the U.N. mission MONUC were the first to leave after a 15-month tour, with the rest due to follow by the end of the month.
Alan Doss, head of the force set up by the U.N. Security Council in 2000, told Reuters June 30 was a landmark occasion.
"I think we also recognise MONUC has been here 10 years and we have to evolve and adapt," he said.
Doss said the Congolese state must make efforts to stabilise the country which, since the end of the 1998-2003 civil war that cost more than 5 million lives, has been struggling to quell rebellions in its east and on its northern border.
"We can push out an armed group but if the state doesn't come in with police, justice, roads, schools, then it won't make a big difference."
From July 1, MONUC will be renamed MONUSCO and will focus on civilian protection. It is committed to withdrawing up to 2,000 troops by the end of June, depending on security.
The government had previously asked for a total withdrawal of MONUC's nearly 21,000 troops -- the U.N.'s biggest force -- in 2011, but said in May it was satisfied with immediate plans for 2,000 troops to leave before the 50th anniversary of independence from Belgian colonial rule.
Doss said MONUC has proposed other areas for potential withdrawals. They are likely to be in the west of the country which is less affected by conflict.
He said the U.N. commitment was to remove up to 2,000 troops, without giving a final number.
The Senegalese battalion has been based in Kisangani, capital of Orientale province where rebels of the Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) have killed hundreds of Congolese in recent months.
"Our biggest concerns now are the operations against the LRA," said Doss.
Kisangani would not be left without peacekeepers and troop distribution would be reconfigured to ensure citizens were protected, he said.
Doss is due to step down at the end of the month when Roger Meece, former U.S. ambassador in Kinshasa, takes over the post. (Editing by Daniel Magnowski and Andrew Dobbie)
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